RIAA Ceases Suing Peer-To-Peer Users

by , Dec 22, 2008, 7:00 AM
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RIAAFive years, three months and 11 days after filing its first batch of lawsuits against file-sharers, the Recording Industry Association of America shocked industry watchers Friday with the announcement that it will no longer sue peer-to-peer users, but will instead, work with Internet service providers to sanction individuals.

Digital rights advocates had mixed reactions to the unexpected developments. Many cheered the news that the lawsuits against unlucky individuals, seemingly chosen by the record industry at random, would end. But the prospect of broadband providers and the recording industry working together to judge and disconnect alleged file-sharers alarms advocates.

Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, highlighted some of the advocates' most pressing concerns. "While we welcome the end of the lawsuit campaign, a 'three strikes' approach is not a long-term solution, since it's not going to stop file-sharing or get artists paid," he said. "And there is a real danger that mistaken allegations will result in people being kicked off the Internet, as well as continued pressure on ISPs to filter and keep digital dossiers on the activities of their subscribers."

The plan involves escalating sanctions that would start with a warning to alleged file-sharers and potentially culminate in disconnection. Many pundits refer to the proposal as a "three strikes" plan, but it's not clear how many warnings people would get before facing disconnection, or how long the disconnections would last.

An RIAA spokeswoman said people will be able to deny the accusations, but that the details have not been worked out. "It's clear that there needs to be a reliable mechanism in place for individuals to contest an allegation if they feel they have been incorrectly identified," she said.

In addition, RIAA President Cary Sherman told News.com there are no plans to create blacklists. For now, the plan doesn't include asking broadband providers to filter networks for pirated material, Wired reports. The new plan was brokered by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The lawsuit strategy is widely viewed as a public relations disaster. In more than five years, the RIAA sued or threatened to sue around 35,000 file-sharers, including one deceased grandmother, teenagers, and single mothers. In that time, many people paid four-figure settlements rather than fight the cases, while others who attempted to defend themselves couldn't find or afford lawyers.

Meanwhile, the one case that went to a jury trial--a lawsuit against single mother Jammie Thomas--ultimately resulted in a mistrial.

At one point, the RIAA admitted that it spent millions prosecuting cases--far more than it recovered in settlements. Meanwhile, revenue from sales fell to around $10 billion last year from more than $14 billion in 1998--the year before Napster launched.

The cases also sparked backlash by judges. In one famous example, federal district court judge Michael Davis, presiding over the Jammie Thomas matter, complained that the penalties were inordinately high and called on Congress to lower the minimum award of $750 per infringement.

"While the Court does not discount Plaintiffs' claim that, cumulatively, illegal downloading has far-reaching effects on their businesses, the damages awarded in this case are wholly disproportionate to the damages suffered by Plaintiffs," he wrote in a written opinion in the Thomas case.

The fate of pending cases is unclear. The RIAA for now is continuing with them, but some observers think the organization now has little reason to continue to attempt to extract large settlements. Ray Beckerman, a defense attorney who maintains the blog Recording Industry vs. The People, was optimistic that pending matters will be resolved.

"I would predict that eventually they'll realize that it's more prudent for them to get rid of those cases than continue to pursue them," he said.

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